The history of GM foods

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THE PIONEER of modern genetics is the nineteenth-century Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, who experimented on peas - cross-breeding tall ones with short ones - and deduced that there were discrete inherited factors responsible for the way they turned out. In his laws of gametic purity and independent segregation, Mendel codified what farmers had practised for generations.

THE PIONEER of modern genetics is the nineteenth-century Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, who experimented on peas - cross-breeding tall ones with short ones - and deduced that there were discrete inherited factors responsible for the way they turned out. In his laws of gametic purity and independent segregation, Mendel codified what farmers had practised for generations.

Since James Watson and Francis Crick cracked the genetic code at Cambridge in 1953, identifying the double helix structure of DNA, the human engineering of genes has been a possibility. But it took two decades for their discovery, which won them the Nobel Prize in 1962, to yield results in the lab and two more for GM products to appear in the shops.

However, genetic modification has other ramifications, as its opponents point out. According to Sue Dibb and Tim Lobstein of the Food Commission, GM "opens up possibilities that traditional methods never could. Genes can be added, inactivated or deleted from cells... In the most revolutionary branch of genetic engineering they can be transferred from one species to another."

In nature, they point out, you can't cross a fish with a vegetable. Animals and plants have long been separate in evolution. But laboratory researchers have produced a "frost-resistant" tomato by splicing into its genetic code a gene that protects a flounder from the cold. The first transgenic plant is said to have been created in the early Eighties when a gene from a bacterium was spliced into a petunia. Subsequently oilseed rape has had a bay tree gene spliced into it, to improve its oil, and a potato has been given a disease-resistant chicken gene.

In the Nineties, biotechnology moved out of the laboratory into farms and shops, and became a boom industry. In 1990 the first GM food, a yeast, was approved in the UK; in 1992 the first food to be made from a GM ingredient - a vegetarian cheese - went on sale in the UK; and three years ago supermarkets started selling GM tomato purée.

Between 1996 and 1998, according to the Worldwatch Institute, the area planted with GM products jumped from two to 28 million hectares worldwide, and around 60 different crops, most notably soya, have been developed.

But there are signs that the biotechnology bubble may be about to burst. In the US, commercial planting has raced ahead. However, Europe is resisting, and in the UK commercial planting has been postponed, although the Government is going ahead with trials of GM crops.

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